'The Right Stuff': TV Review

The Right Stuff- Publicity - H 2020
Gene Page/National Geographic
Handsome and decently acted, but lacking any trace of Tom Wolfe's flair.
10/9/2020

Leonardo DiCaprio is among the producers of Disney+'s series adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book about the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Philip Kaufman's 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is a rare creature in that it's borderline perfect, from tone to casting to miles-ahead-of-the-curve effects work. And yet it isn't close to being definitive. Most near-perfect adaptations of near-perfect books probably shouldn't be remade or tampered with, but even with a running time of 192 minutes, the film barely dips into the wealth of stories and characterizations in Wolfe's free-wheeling chronicle of the Project Mercury astronauts.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I approached Disney+'s new series adaptation of The Right Stuff. Sure, it probably couldn't live up to the film, but there's no reason why it shouldn't adapt the book successfully on its own terms. Critics have been sent the first five (of eight) hours of the series and thus far, this Right Stuff is disappointingly...fine. Approach it simply as Hunky Young Astronauts in Love rather than a Wolfe adaptation — it's constantly adding things that aren't in the book and yet, like the movie, it still can't find time to dedicate a full episode to NASA's test monkeys — and you might even be able to dispense with some of the disappointment.

The first episode, directed by Chris Long (The Americans), is the closest Mark Lafferty's (Halt and Catch Fire) adaptation comes to actively remaking Kaufman's film, right down to recycling "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the soundtrack. Even before they're actually selected from a pool of the nation's most decorated, college-educated test pilots, we're quickly introduced to the men who will make up the Mercury Seven, including clean-cut, media-savvy John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), hot-headed rule-breaker Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), philandering Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) and much less clearly defined Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock) and Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter). Each is eager to do whatever it takes to become the first man, or at least the first American man, in space.

One thing folks familiar with either previous The Right Stuff incarnation will notice — even as this version mimics sequences of cocky flyboys undergoing intrusive medical tests and macho posturing at a desert drinking hole near Andrews Air Force Base — is the lack of Chuck Yeager, personification of Wolfe's ideal of "the right stuff," played indelibly by Sam Shepard in the film. Removing that character is a way — not an effective way, apparently — to duck comparisons and get straight to focusing on the Mercury Seven. But losing that figure and his daredevil spirit, in a profession under the perpetual specter of death, diminishes any sense of what sets these guys apart. (It's completely possible, of course, that the TV series is holding Yeager for a flashback episode later on. That, in itself, would be a choice.)

Instead, there's a joke about how the Mercury Seven all look alike. And indeed, despite my pretty solid familiarity with the material, my notes identify some of the astronauts as "One Tree Hill Guy," "Mad Men Guy" and "Deke-or-Gus." Such a lack of distinctiveness among characters undermines the entire purpose of expanding this material.

The good news is that Adams, all harried rectitude and superciliousness, McDorman, always a master of preppy overconfidence, and O'Donoghue, evincing more weary uncertainty in Gordo's marital crisis than Dennis Quaid's rascally big-screen interpretation, are very good.

But the bland interchangeability of 57 percent of the main astronauts haunts The Right Stuff, which has a bright, flat shininess and no room for texture. Now is this a pointed commentary on the squeaky-clean, edges-sanded-off image that NASA, in league with Life magazine (represented here by Josh Cooke's Loudon Wainwright Jr.), wanted to project? Conceivably, yes. Yet the whole purpose of Wolfe's book was to turn these manufactured idols back into real men, and all traces of Wolfe's puckish, iconoclastic tone is absent here — perhaps scrubbed away in a transition from production at NatGeo to Disney+, where the powers that be will already surely be scandalized by scenes of infidelity and the occasional exposed bare back. Wolfe was taking these spacemen out of their perfect 1950s boxes, and Disney+ is plunking them right back in.

As the astronauts become mostly forgettable Ken dolls, peripheral figures fill the void as the series' most consistently appealing elements. Nora Zehetner, as Glenn's spotlight-shy wife Annie, and Eloise Mumford, as Gordo's spunky pilot wife Trudy, are so good they make one almost yearn for the wives to become the focus (which assumes you've forgotten that ABC got one summer out of the comparably polished, but actually much more adventurous Astronaut Wives Club). I also really enjoyed how the hallways of NASA are just packed with favorite character actors like Patrick Fischler, Eric Ladin and Danny Strong, making me wish that this Right Stuff had an iota of the quirky spirit that Kaufman's movie let Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum exhibit. (Oh, and if you've been wondering what happened to karate-loving Chris Brody from early Homeland, that's Jackson Pace as future NASA bigwig Glynn Lunney.)

Viewers, particularly ones with any attachment to the source material, are left with a tough choice here. The first episode keeps nodding to the Kaufman movie, and it's not a flattering comparison. Then subsequent episodes leave Wolfe's storytelling behind — and, heck, there were aspects of this story that Wolfe, a writer with his own myopias, could have honored more — to such an extent that what we're seeing could just be a non-specifically researched TV take on the space race. And that doesn't feel like exactly the right stuff either.

Those test pilots who dreamt of making it to the moon broke sound barriers and social norms. They were audacious and gifted. It was an attitude borne of high-altitude bailouts, regular funerals and the cultish adoration of everybody around them. It was unmistakable and unique. Forgive me, then, if it takes some adjustment of expectations to settle for a treatment of their life that's simply "OK."

Creator: Mark Lafferty from the book by Tom Wolfe

Cast: Patrick J. Adams, Jake McDorman, Colin O’Donoghue, James Lafferty, Aaron Staton, Michael Trotter and Micah Stock

New episodes premiere Fridays on Disney+ starting on October 9.